Vanessa Brantley Newton is a renowned children’s book artist, writer, and speaker known for her commitment to representing children of all ethnic backgrounds throughout her work, and the artist behind our Emotions Tapestry, which she illustrated just for Gathre. Here, we share a special, behind-the-scenes peek into what drives her, from a personal and artistic perspective.

1. We’ve followed your career for quite a while now, but for those who don’t know you yet, can you share a little bit about your background?

Well, I have been drawing since I was three years old. I am dyslexic and I also have something called synesthesia, which is the ability to see, smell, feel, taste, and hear color. I failed all the way through school because of dyslexia. I attended The Fashion Institute of Technology and SVA, The School of Visual Arts in New York City, where I studied fashion illustration and children’s book illustration. I worked as a phlebotomist for 25 years specializing in phlebotomy for newborns, premature, children with cancer as well as women oncology and geriatrics. I did not work in the industry of art for a very long time until I started blogging. After blogging for a couple of years I got an opportunity to work with Scholastic books through Karen Proctor who was an editor at Scholastic and that was the beginning of my career.
2. How did you get your start as an illustrator? And what inspired you to pursue this as a career?

As I stated before I have been drawing since I was three years old. It was the way that I communicated with people. It was an escape for me, but it was also an opportunity for me to use my imagination. As for starting as an illustrator, I started blogging and got to know so many of the Illustrators that are out here right now in the business. We would visit each other’s blogs and leave encouraging words, but I got little help as so many people viewed me as competition, and they really didn’t want to talk to me about how to break into the illustration world. I began doing my own research and creating my own moments to learn . I did this by looking at my daughter’s children’s books, doing Google searches for my favorite Illustrators like Ezra Jack Keats, Mary Blair, Fiep Westendorp and other midcentury illustrators. I kind of created my own course and just began to draw what I loved and what I remembered as a child. Not seeing black children in picture books when I was little made me want to make sure that every child got to see themselves in a picture book and that became my motto. I began working on my own portfolio and putting the pieces that brought me joy into it. One day a friend came over and she asked me, Who does this artwork? I said, I create this artwork, and we discussed that we had never spoken about my ability to illustrate or draw. She then asked me, did I know who she worked for? And I told her no as I never spoke about work in our eight year relationship. She then told me that she worked for Scholastic books and that I was hired! That is Karen Proctor.

3. Tell us a little bit about your artistic process. How do you get started and what gets your creative juices flowing?

It is some sometimes very difficult for me to talk about my process as sometimes I don’t really understand it. Very intuitive, very in the moment, and how I’m feeling. Music has everything to do with it. It is like the other paint that is on my palette, if you will. I love to start off with color theme and then move into line work. While I work on the computer I really try to take out the coldness that digital art can take on with smooth lines. I didn’t like to sketch, but now I love sketching and I fill up sketchbooks as often as I can. I look for inspiration as well. I study children while in the supermarket, at school visits, or in the library, but I try to find active children so that I can draw them. Remembering hairdos and clothing and movement.
4. Can you share with us your perspective on diversity and inclusion in children’s literature and why it’s so important to you personally?

I remember the first time I ever saw a child that looked like me in a children’s book. That book is The Snowy Day written and illustrated by the illustrious and magnificent Ezra Jack Keats. It changed my life. For so many years as a child I thought I was invisible until the day Mrs. Russell sat me on her lap and opened the special book. The pictures are indelibly printed on my brain, I cannot wash them off and they stay with me every time I do a children’s book. We send a very strong message to children of color when they do not see themselves reflected in the books they read, the shows they watch and games they play. It also sends a message to white children that black children cannot do anything, that they are not important, that they are not visible . All children need to see themselves beautifully illustrated in picture books. They need to know that they are all seen. My desire is to embrace every single child no matter what culture or economic arena. I want all children to know that Miss Vanessa sees them.
5. What experiences, personally or creatively, influence the themes prevalent in your art?

I am a retro girl to my very soul! I just love mid-century modern art and illustration and even studying these fantastic Illustrators like Mary Blair and Ezra Jack Keats – their work is so clean and colorful and flat, and I love that! It excites me every time I get to see their artwork up close and you get to see the mistakes and the textures. Ezra Jack Keats in particular did his work in gouache as well as collage and that is what I work in now, the very same. These things really inspire me –the simplicity of it all, but the beauty of the design.
6. In what ways do you feel your illustration style aligns with the Gathre design aesthetic and values?

That this company is really about inclusion and that every child is seen, which is so very important in learning. That every child can recognize themselves or somebody that they know and the design and the aesthetics and values.
7. What lasting impact, above all others, do you hope to make with your artwork?

That children would feel seen and virtually hugged and more than anything… loved and lifted.
8. When you’re not changing the world through your work, what kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?

I get asked this question all the time and I love it lol! If I wasn’t an illustrator I would be a professional chef because I love to cook. I love to cook all kinds of food but my favorite is low country fare. Things like shrimp and grits, red rice or frogmore stew which is basically a Lowcountry boil. I am also a singer of gospel as well as jazz and I have opened up for groups such as Take Six, and I won the gospel duo MaryMary singing contest.

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